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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 28

Shetland Witch Stories

page 70

Shetland Witch Stories.

The Witch of Dunrossness.

The Orkney and Shetland islanders were rich in witchcraft superstitions. They had all the Norwegian beliefs in fullest, ripest quality, and held to everything that had been handed down to them from Harald Harfagre and his followers. Kelpies and trows, and brownies and trolls, which somehow or other went out with taxation and agriculture, peopled every stream and every meadow, and witches were as many as there were men who loved nature, or women who had a faculty for healing and the instinct of making pets. Somewhere about the middle of the seventeenth century, a woman was adjudged a witch because she was seen going from Hilswick to Brecon with a couple of familiars in the form of crows or corbies, which hopped on each side of her all the way. Which thing, not being in the honest nature of these fowls to do, she was strangled and burnt. But most frequently the imp took the shape of a cat or dog; sometimes of a respectable human being; as was the case about seventy years ago, when it was notorious that the devil, as a good braw countryman, helped a warlock's wife to delve while her husband was engaged at the haaf. According to the same authority too, not longer ago than this time, when the devil dug like any navvy, a woman of the parish of Dunrossness was known to have a deadly enmity against a boat's crow that had sot off to the haaf. The day was cloudless, but the woman was a witch, and storms were as easy for her to raise as to blow a kiss from the hand. She took a wooden basin, called a cap, and set it afloat in a tub of water; then, as if to disarm suspicion, went about her household work, chanting softly to herself an old Norse ditty. After she had sung a verso or two she sent her little child to look at the tub, and see whether the cap was whummilled (turned upside down) or no. The child said the water was stirring but the bowl was afloat. The woman went on singing a little louder, and presently sent the child again to see how matters stood. This time the child said there was a strange swell in the water, but the cap still floated. The woman then sang more loud and fierce, and again she sent. The child came back saying the waters were strangely troubled, and the cap was whummilled. Then she cried out, "The ton is done!" and left off singing. On the same day came word that a fishing yawl had been lost in the Roust, and all on board drowned. The same story is told of some women in the island of Fetlar, who, when a boat's crew had perished in the Bay of Funzie, were found sitting round a well, muttering mysterious words over a wooden bowl supernaturally agitated. The whole thing, as Hibbert says, forcibly reminds one of the old Norse superstition of the Quern Song.

Luggie of Bressay.

It was no unusual thing for men and women of otherwise peaceable and cleanly life to tamper with the elements in those dim and distant days. Even seventy years ago a man named John Sutherland of Papa Stour was page 71 in the habit of getting a fair wind for weather-bound vessels; and the Knoll of Kibister, in the island of Bressay, now called Luggie's Knowe, testifies by its name to the skill and sorrowful fate of a well-known wizard of the seventeenth century. There on that steep hill used Luggie to live, and in the stormiest weather managed somehow always to have his bit of fresh fish: angling with the most perfect success, even when the boats could not come into the bay. When out at sea Luggie had nothing to do but cast out his lines to have as plentiful a dinner as he could desire. "He would out of Neptune's lowest kitchen, bring cleverly up fish well-boiled and roasted;" but strange and mischancy as the art was, his com-panions got accustomed to it, "and would by a natural courage make a merry meal thereof, not doubting who was cook." But Luggie's cleverness proved fatal to him. Men were not even adept fishers in those days without danger, and jealousy and fear helped to swell the reputation of his natural skill into supernatural power: so he was tried for a sorcerer, and burnt at a stake at Scalloway. We need hardly wonder at the fate of poor Luggie, considering the times. If it were possible to hang two women on the 26th of January 1681—actually to hang them in the sight of God and this loving pitiful human world, for calling kings and bishops perjured bloody men," we need not wonder to what lengths superstition in any of its other forms was carried. We have made a stride since then, with seven-leagued boots winged at the heels.

The Norwegian Lady.

A Family of bright young sons lived on one of the Shetland islands. A certain Norwegian lady had reason to think herself slighted by one of them, and she swore she would have her revenge. The sons were about to cross a voe or ferry : but one was to take his shelty, while the rest were to go by the boat. Mysteriously the shelty was found to have been loosed from its tether, and was gone; so all the heirs male of the race were under the necessity of going by the boat across the voe. It was the close of day—a mild windless evening—not a ripple was on the water, not a cloud in the sky; and no one on either bank heard a cry or saw the waters stir. But the youths never returned home. When they were searched for the next day they could nowhere be found—only the boat drifting to the shore, unharmed and unsteered. When the deed was done the shelty was brought back to its tether as mysteriously as it had been taken away.

Jonka Dyneis and Katherine Jonesdochter.

Sixteen hundred and sixteen was a fruitful year for the witch-finders. There was Jonka Dyneis of Shetland, who, offended with one Olave, fell out in most vile cursings and blasphemous exclamations, saying that within a few days his bones should be "raiking" about the banks; and as she predicted so it did turn out—Olave perishing by her sorcery and enchantments. And not content with this, she cursed the other son of the poor widowed mother, and in fourteen days he also died, to Jonka's own undoing when the Shetlanders would bear her iniquities no longer. And there was Katherine Jonesdochter, also of Shetland, who cruelly transferred her husband's natural infirmities to a stranger.—From 'Witch Stories' collected by E. Lynn Linton.